Whether it’s something you look forward to or dread, this occasion will always be about family—for better or worse.
Noche Buena. Our answer to the Americans’ Thanksgiving or the Jewish people’s Hanukkah. It is our big event, it’s the “good night”—as it’s literally translated from the Spanish—to end all good nights of the past year.
We all have memories of it, whether pleasant or forgettable, fairly recent or conjured from a hazy distance, Noche Buena for many of us holds a spot in our core memory.
The tradition is close to 500 years of history right there. And as age-old as Noche Buena is, change is bound to happen.
It’s where Christmas cheer collides with an aunt’s thoughtless remark about your gaining weight or singlehood, and festive parlor games give way to passive-aggressive remarks on who should get the bigger parcel of land. Whether it’s something you look forward to or something you dread, one thing can’t be denied: Noche Buena is all about family, for better or worse.
And this is the same theme that runs through all the other Noche Buenas celebrated in other parts of the world, countries which, like ours, had been under Spanish colonial rule.
A centuries-old tradition rooted in colonialism
Noche Buena traces its origins back to Spanish colonization and the spread of Catholicism in the Philippines and Latin America which started in the late 15th century. Though the 333-year period in our history isn’t something we look back on with fondness, it has bequeathed upon us some traditions that aren’t exactly unpalatable, Noche Buena being one of those few.
And this most festive of occasions has been celebrated for centuries both here on the islands and in faraway similarly colonized lands. The tradition harks back to June 1, 1537 when, as mentioned by food historian and cultural worker Felice Prudente Sta. Maria on her website Philippine Food History, Pope Paul III in his papal bull (public decree issued by a pope) Altitudo Divini Consilii listed the feasts “newly-converted natives” were obliged to observe: Christmas, Circumcision, and Epiphany.
Christmas was a “three crosses” feast, having the highest rank among the other two. With this declaration from the Pope himself, colonial masters could not force natives to work on those days, but they would have to hear mass instead. Food during those feast days was also unlike the usual everyday fare, with sweets serving an important role in making the occasions more special and communal.
This explains why, to this day, Noche Buena—the feast to be had on the night before Christmas day—always involves dishes that are considered special and those that are sweet.
Since 1537. Let that sink in for a moment. That is close to 500 years of history right there. And for a tradition that is as age-old as Noche Buena is, change is bound to happen.
Nowadays, we mostly associate Noche Buena not only with great food but also fun games, gift giving, Jose Mari Chan carols and ABS-CBN’s Christmas station ID songs on endless loop, and the tita or tito you wouldn’t want to sit beside with. Despite the inevitable changes, however, some religious traditions still play a role—albeit diminished in many ways—in how this wondrous occasion is celebrated.
Leading to the “big night,” we have Simbang Gabi, a series of nine dawn masses, usually starting on December 16 and ending on the 24th. Though the term “Simbang Gabi” translates to “evening mass” in English, the masses are typically celebrated in the early morning hours because historically, it allows farmers to attend before heading out to the fields to work.
And Noche Buena (or Nochebuena as it is spelled in the succeeding countries), while we have made it a tradition all our own, is also celebrated in Spain, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, and in other countries in the Americas. They, too, have “Misa de Gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster,” as some older Pinoys still choose to call Simbang Gabi. Our Latino friends also know how to put the “buena” in the “noche,” also with a celebration that can rival ours in extravagance—and noise levels.
A feast like no other
There’s nothing quite like the excitement surrounding Noche Buena. As you’re reading this, you’re most probably caught up in a whirlwind of activities—whether you like or not—which will culminate with a late-night feast on Christmas Eve.
Last-minute shopping for presents for your naughty inaanak, arranging presents under the Christmas tree, preparing make-ahead dishes like your granny’s embodito, morcon, or lumpiang shanghai filling, all while having to contend with the dreaded carmaggedon to and from the grocery or the mall—okay lang; it’s for Noche Buena after all!
Here in the good ol’ islands, Noche Buena is a night of indulgence. Walang high blood-high blood! To hell with cholesterol—give me an extra plate of that crispy lechon skin NOW!
Aside from roast pig are other festive dishes, some of which the family matriarch cooks up (or buys) only for that special occasion like chicken galantina or jamon de bola. I still recall how my late lola would bring a huge pot of her well-loved menudo to our Noche Buena. Humble, yes, but Nanay’s recipe brings comfort even if memories are only what’s left of it.
A Noche Buena spread is also incomplete without a platter of Filipino-style spaghetti—the one with more hotdogs than there is ground meat, a seemingly endless supply of lumpiang shanghai, and pancit, whatever your family’s preferred variant is, ours has always been pancit ng taga-Malabon. Some families would have paella, wines, and fruitcakes. Regardless of what’s on your table, food just seems to be overflowing during Noche Buena.
Noche Buena is also a night for those with a sweet tooth. The parade of all the native kakanin always makes the mouth water—biko, puto maya, leche flan, ube halaya, and my personal favorite: silky smooth maja blanca. Then there’s of course the one-punch combo of Christmas staples: bibingka and puto bumbong. And the best complement to all the sweet treats? A steaming mug of rich tsokolate.
The late great food writer Doreen G. Fernandez wrote in her book Tikim that sweet rice cakes and other rice-based fares (like arroz caldo and pospas) are a constant during Noche Buena because even if it is a feast that is largely Christian in nature, it is also built on an older celebration, harvest, most probably.
Thus, she wrote, “It is therefore syncretic, acquiring meanings and symbols from pre-Christian observances…Rice figures in our pre-Christian rituals—offerings to the gods, marriage ceremonies, fertility rites. It is so basic to our food life that it is appropriately symbol as well as staff of life. And so it now figures in this most Christian of feasts, as we give thanks, we celebrate, we offer each other rice on the important days of our year’s passage.”
Over the years, the traditional Noche Buena spread has also seen changes. Some now have charcuterie boards or baked sushi to go with the classic fares. Families who are too busy will just order bundle meals and have these delivered right at their doorstep.
While food, drinks, and music are Noche Buena staples that won’t go anywhere, each family has its own distinct way of celebrating. Karaoke-loving ones will sing the night away, with neighbors less likely to complain this time of the year—everybody’s extra nice during Christmas after all. Our family, when my Mama and Nanay were still alive, would have several rounds of Bingo as well as Monito Monita or Secret Santa.
Other countries which celebrate Noche Buena do so with the same extravagance. In Mexico, a big family feast is made complete with tamales, pozole rojo (a traditional chile stew), and pavo or turkey, just like the Americans do during Thanksgiving. Some families make—and then break—piñatas, the breaking of which symbolizes the rejection of sin and the candies within represents a reward from heaven.
Cubans also celebrate Noche Buena with lechon (or what they call lechon asado), arroz y frijoles negro (black beans with white rice), vaca frita tostones (fried plantain with shredded beef), lots of Cuban bread, and flan de caramelo, their version of leche flan.
In Spain, meanwhile, pavo trufado de Navidad (turkey stuffed with truffle mushrooms) and pularda asada (roasted fowl) are usually served. The Spaniards also have an assortment of tapas, cured meats, seafood, and cheeses, as well as turrónes (nougat confections), polvorones, and mazapán (Mexican candy made with toasted peanuts and powdered sugar) for dessert.
While Noche Buena is celebrated in so many different ways and has changed in just as many ways, its very heart remains the same: family. Noche Buena is and will always be a time for loved ones to eat, drink, and just be merry together, even for one good night a year.